Do you ever think about the history of the internet? Do you ever think about how the internet was like before Facebook and Twitter ruined fucking everything? Well, this game is a fictionalized time capsule of how the internet used to be.
Hypnospace Outlaw is primarily led by Jay Tholen (known for Dropsy) and published by No More Robots, with a team consisting of Mike Lasch, Xalavier Nelson Jr, Corey Cochran and Pip Hoskins. You are a volunteer enforcer for Hypnospace, an internet network people access in their sleep, tasked with striking down prohibited content as the big Y2K looms around the corner. It is an exploration game with a twist in that you’re not walking around vast spaces, but hopping around fake internet pages, clicking on links and traveling down paths that seem interesting, much like obsessive wiki binges.
Hypnospace Outlaw is actually a game I helped Kickstart, so I’m 2 for 2 on things that I supported on Kickstarter. I remember backing it back in freshman year because I fell in love with its look and I’m happy to say that all that waiting has paid off.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a love letter to the website designs of old. It’s an ode to when minimalism in website design to avoid having to pay graphic designers was not the standard, with messiness coming from people enthusiastically screwing around.
People going into this may think, “Hypnospace Outlaw is laying it too thick with how it portrays websites.” I initially thought that too, since I was not on the internet during this early age, and just thought it was all for the aesthetic. Nope, no. There are many sites dedicated to documenting the reign of Geocites, most prominently One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age, and scrolling through, you can see that Hypnospace Outlaw is actually pretty close to reality, barring the pages that no longer exist.
Part of what makes Hypnospace Outlaw’s aesthetic perfect is its imperfections. It isn’t all perfectly crafted web pages. Frequently on your journey you’ll find pages that are still under construction and pages that just scream “graphic design is my passion.” Everything feels human. Even the pages that serve as exposition for the world’s lore feels human, with one guy rambling informally on the fictional music history leading up to coolpunk.
While Hypnospace Outlaw is an ode to old websites, it looks less fondly on the people that run websites. Everything seems cheery at the start, but as you progress, the Merchants (creators of Hypnospace) seem less like the idealized Silicon Valley heroes and more like the malicious and incompetent visage of website nerds in reality. One of the Merchants considering striking a deal with a blatant scam application to make it a trusted brand is only the tip of the iceberg.
In general, there’s an underlying anxiety on capitalism underneath the surface. Consider the fact that you’re only paid for your hard work in Hypno Coin, which as one page points out, can only be used in Hypnospace and can’t be exchanged for real money; yep, getting paid for your hard work in company scrip, baby! In fact, the general concept of Hypnospace, as presented in an ad at the beginning, reflects the idea that you must always be hustling, must always be productive; it is “a world where sleep time is no longer down time.”
So, how is it like actually playing it? Well, if you clicked on the link to this post, that’s a good chunk of the experience down. Are you still scrolling through, reading this? You got it. The only thing different in your core experience is that you can flag people’s posts; I don’t know what it’s like to be a moderator, but I dunno, maybe this is how it’s like to be a mod. As such, the game feels easy to pick up – even then, you got a cheesy 90’s training video to show you the ropes.
The story is advanced through clearing cases and at points, time progresses. Reflecting the human feel of the game, you’ll see that most of the pages of the pages change, addressing some of your strikes or just getting into personal drama, encouraging some backtracking. The number of zones you can explore also steadily increases, exposing you to new things to dive into. My favorite zone is honestly Coolpunk Paradise, because it’s pretty much the documentation of the peak and decline of a pretend internet sub-culture, which is fascinating to me.
Smaller narratives like that help the story along until the main narrative starts coming into picture. Really have to say, the last act is not something you’d expect and the game ended on a surprisingly emotional note for me.
A fear that I had going into the game is if the core experience would get old. However, there’s a lot to see between the updating pages and new zones being added. As you progress, the game also demands that you go more in-depth with investigating cases; the initial case has its copyright violations in broad daylight but later cases will have you scrambling to find where stuff is hidden off, using information you learned from other pages to hunt it down. You’ll really going to need to pay attention to things in the late game.
I mentioned before that you get Hypno Coin for flagging posts. Hypno Coin is used to buy from the various services on Hypnospace, since they ban all other currencies and services. You can buy your own goofy JPEGs to decorate your virtual desktop and you can buy food for your pet – trust me, you’re going to need a pet, it’s actually important down the line and also, how can you not resist petting that hamster? Also, music.
And the music, it’s real good. You’ve got catchy commercial jingles, you’ve got stuff from a hip-hop analogue, etc. People lose their minds over tumblr blogs having autoplaying themes but here, it’s cool – I will not get tired of that fantasy rock song about shaving. There’s a surprising number of tracks in the game and some of them don’t seem to show up in normal gameplay – gotta buy it yourself. I don’t know if music was a big deal for Geocities and I wasn’t around for Myspace – which fucking, by the way, lost everything – but it’s something that helps define the Hypnospace experience, with music often defining its users as much as their content.
Hypnospace Outlaw is a delightful dreamy trip through old websites, with a nice overall main story and the many tinier stories of Hypnospace’s users intertwined. Playing the game got me thinking about the preservation of websites, which was egged on by the Myspace news. Hypnospace Outlaw shows how personal these internet spaces can mean to people and it is a game that champions keeping those spaces alive.